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Our new favourite trailblazing art/education studio

Over the past few weeks, The Cultural Index – A.K.A. our new favourite trailblazing art/education studio – has released two out of three stories from their newest online exhibition UNMASKED. The radical project rethinks art’s role in culture in a totally contemporary – and honestly refreshing – way: using art as an interactive educational storytelling device. UNMASKED viewers dive into discourse with artefact’s stories from not only Design Museum Den Bosch and the Wereldculturen Collectie, but also from artists from around the world such as POSTNEON, Pim Boreel, and Cross Lucid

UNMASKED utilises this art to investigate how individuals present their faces to the world. Viewers learn that the face is one of the most meaningful markers of the human body a perhaps intuitive, yet underexplored discussion in digital culture discourses. The chapters are guided by an eerily lifelike androgynous 3D Model that links together stories and practises of masking from the past with reflections on the rapidly approaching future. With technology that has become so attuned to our facial behaviour, it has become oracle-like, necessitating critical discussions on our digital facial presentation. 

Story 1: Dance of the Faces explores the act of masking as a historical practice that has united the natural world with the spiritual world across cultures. This practise, as the chapter argues, is not as foreign to us 21st-century folk as we may think. “The 20th century brought with it a new kind of supernatural: the personal computer and an internet connection. No longer were higher forces accessible only through ritual. We could step into an entirely new universe from the comfort of our own homes.” Story 2: Leave The Face At Home brings light to the current relationship between the face and technology, highlighting the ways the two are becoming ever more intertwined. This chapter begins to ask challenging questions such as: “What happens when powerful forces know too much?” and “why would your government, workplace or an advertising platform need to know your sexual orientation?” 

In celebration of the upcoming release of Story 3: 1000 faces or None on May 31st, we got a chance to speak to three of the artists from the project, Mirjam Mengershausen, ScumBoy, and Sondi to get deeper insights about their own work on the UNMASKED project.

How are you all today?
Mirjam: Thank you. I am doing well, working on interesting projects at the moment so I can´t complain.

ScumBoy: Yeah pretty good, it’s cold af in Cape Town currently so trying to get the studio feeling cosy, makes it easier to work. 

Sondi: I’m good, I’m enjoying the small moments of sun here in Amsterdam. 

How would you describe your craft and the art you make?
Mirjam: My craft somehow derives from traditional ways of knitting, executed with modern techniques and machines. This combination creates interesting friction between fast-evolving technology and old handicraft. With these techniques, I am working on fashion that does not only fool surveillance cameras but is also comfortable, practical and sustainable to wear. Using upcycled materials, no-waste and local production is essential to my vision of a conscious design.

ScumBoy: I’m a 3D designer/artist, I get inspired by things around me and then I try to recreate those things in a 3D world. I’m currently super into creating natural 3D environments and world-building, as well as creating digital garments and then merging the two together. 

Sondi: Generally I describe myself as a digital artist and multi-disciplinary graphic designer. I’ve been trained as a graphic designer but now my work has shifted more towards a research-based practice where I utilise 3D software and new technologies as a tool for investigating and storytelling. In my work, I explore the concept of world-building outside of white patriarchy and I create hybrid spaces that examine new modes of being, using imagination as a tool for liberation.

What was your artistic journey to get to the point you are at today?
Mirjam: I have a strong sense of fairness, and I have found my way of expressing it through fashion. I have engaged with pottery, painting, printing, goldsmithing and woodcarving. But fashion seemed to be the most powerful tool for me. I was able to combine my love for making textiles with my desire to draw attention to contemporary issues. 

ScumBoy: I started doing 3D about 4 years ago and honestly I just saw something on Instagram and was like “ that looks fucking cool I wanna do that” and then I torrented some 3D software and watched some YouTube videos and now it’s my full-time career. In the beginning, the whole basis of my creativity was trying to figure out how the software worked, I had no idea what I was doing, so I was just making random ugly shit to practice. Now that I kinda know what I’m doing it’s easier to be experimental but still make it look somewhat decent. 

Sondi: My work is heavily centred around the body and its relation to our environment. When I moved to the Netherlands it was to study psychology at the UvA. It was not the right path for me in the end and I took some time off to re-focus. I started working on my portfolio and a while later I got accepted at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (KABK). I graduated from the graphic design department last year in 2021. This study taught me a lot of practical skills and this is also where I found my love for 3D, but in general, I was missing a theoretical approach to making. To close that gap I applied to the temporary master program “Blacker Blackness” at Sandberg. I’m currently in my first year and exploring how to combine the different knowledge and tools I’ve acquired over time into my own practice. 

This collaboration with the Cultural Index is super exciting! What did your craft contribute to this project?
Mirjam: It is a great pleasure to be here. Thank you for the opportunity to engage in this discourse to explore the potential of disguise through the combination of art and technology. As the only fashion designer, I can put the focus on how we can empower ourselves every day by the simple decision of what we wear. Fashion is powerful and we can influence how we want to be seen or if we want to be seen.

ScumBoy: I think the main aspect of UNMASKED is faces and human characteristics, which is something I’ve always found fascinating and exciting. I feel like creating entire humans that don’t exist in real life but only exist in a digital space is crazy. Because the majority of my work involves different characters and humans that are distorted I think I was able to offer the human face but in a different stylized way. 

Could you tell me about the process of your contribution to this project?
Mirjam: I was dealing with the question of what the future of fashion will look like, which problems we will have to deal with in the next 30 years and how we can use fashion to solve them. The loss of control over your image and your data will continue to increase. Surveillance systems register us and analyze our behaviour patterns in detail. In China alone, surveillance cameras have risen from 10 million to 600 million since 2013. That’s one camera for every 2nd citizen. In my collection, I explored how to self-determine at a time of one’s choosing, how to confuse these high-tech algorithms with low-tech and disappear from the eye of the surveillance camera. The algorithms search for anchor points on the body and face from which they create a mathematical model. The distances from shoulder to elbow to hand etc. are recorded. My research and many self-tests have revealed that in some cases it is already sufficient to cover large areas of the body or to optically shift the anchor points. Through various mechanisms, the wearer’s silhouette can change so much that the camera can no longer find the important anchor points it needs to capture and calculate a data model. As a result, and due to anti-facial recognition accessories, one disappears from the eyes of the CCTV camera. It is meant to be a statement that opens a space for discussion and dialogue. I want to use my voice and my responsibility as a young designer to underline how important it is that we address these issues because they already affect us all.

ScumBoy: My contribution to this project was a few artworks depicting various faces, as well as my thoughts on facial recognition and brands and how it plays out in today’s society. 

Sondi: A lot of topics I talk about within my work are also reflected within the project of the cultural index and so the collaboration felt natural. We discussed my works and my practice, we talked about the metaverse, the face, artificial intelligence etc… They then found ways to integrate our discussions and my work within the project itself and even added new layers beyond my explanation. It was really interesting to see the dimension the work took within this project.

An important part of the UNMASKED project is its alternative approach to education. To what extent do you believe that art (and your art) has a unique power to tell important stories and address contemporary issues?
Mirjam: UNMASKED shows a beautifully playful approach to education. Art sadly isn’t but definitely should be an integral part of early education, it allows creativity to nourish and what we need right now are creative solutions to forever pressing issues. I hope my work can make a contribution that stands against the suppression through surveillance and I want to visualize how this hinders freedom of speech, movement, and life.

ScumBoy: I think when it comes to educating on topics that aren’t easily digestible, using art and visuals to bring forth an idea or narrative makes it a whole lot easier for the viewer to understand it and interact with it. Educational resources that are just 2D words on paper can be boring as fuck. 

Sondi: I believe that art can be a more approachable way to teach about contemporary issues without it feeling too overwhelming or academic. Of course not all art falls within this, some works require a 50-page manual to be understood. But in my opinion, when art is done well, It taps into different sensibilities and can trigger greater curiosity and eagerness to learn.

What was it like to collaborate with other artists and see your work come together to create this unique narrative tapestry?
Mirjam: It was a joy to collaborate with artists that I have engaged with during my research before UNMASKED. Their work was very important for me to get an overview of how other artists deal with this very complex topic and the advanced algorithms in various ways. We are all approaching a topic from multiple angles and the Cultural Index managed to highlight these differences and give each artist enough space while creating these sophisticated storylines.

ScumBoy: Tbh I wasn’t exactly sure what the exhibition was going to look like in the end, I didn’t know how they wanted to bring everything together but when I saw the first story I was honestly so pumped about how it came together. I think it’s rad having a bunch of artists submit and then formulating it into one cohesive piece. 

Sondi: It was very humbling to see how my work can fit within a bigger narrative and to meet other artists that share a similar practice as mine. Everybody in the team is so talented and so kind. It was a pleasure to be part of this project. 

Which works in the UNMASKED project are you most excited about? (and why)
Mirjam: I was very impressed with all of the work. The 3D works are of course very intriguing because they can show us a completely new time and reality.

ScumBoy: I think Polina Zinziver’s work is so sick and I was so excited to see it come to life. I just think her work is so interesting and her use of light and texture brings her pieces together.

Sondi: The work I’m the most excited about is the one from Pim Boreel, I’m in general quite a big fan of his multisensory approach to art and the projects I’ve seen from him so far. I’m low-key hoping we could collaborate in the future together. 

What were your highlights of working on this creative collaboration?
Mirjam: The launch of the website was the moment when we finally got to see all our work together and the event was great to meet each other and exchange our stories in person.

ScumBoy: Personally having an exhibition that has been curated and launched in Amsterdam is rad, I’m from South Africa so it’s been cool getting to have a voice on the other side of the world.

Sondi: The highlight was definitely to see the project come together after such a long time, the website is such a great platform! I also really enjoyed the launch at Murmur Noord, where we all got to come together face-to-face and enjoy some downtime.

How do you hope to continue to stimulate critical discussions with your art in the future?
Mirjam: I am focusing on a sustainable production chain and developing new techniques of anti-detection technology, there will always be a new algorithm that needs to be tricked.

ScumBoy: I’ve never really intended to create art that purposefully provokes any type of conversation, I think I just create what I see around me and that creates conversation regardless of intent or not.

Sondi: I want to continue to explore new ways of storytelling and investigating and I hope to be able to use my art to make unheard voices sound louder than ever. My future is also partly in education, I want to use my art and create workshops for a younger generation.

Finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2022?
Mirjam: I will try to get closer to what it means for me to work completely sustainably and go even deeper into the craft and make my products available.

ScumBoy: In 2022 I want to do more exhibitions across the world and get more involved with fashion and its intersection with the digital world. 

Sondi: 2022 has been an amazing year so far already, with even better projects still to come. You will be able to see some of my work soon at Sexyland World in June and Stedelijk Museum in November. I’ll also be VJing (real time visual performances) at multiple shows for Gita Buhari in different locations in the Netherlands. Furthermore, I’ll be working towards my master’s thesis and graduation at Sandberg in 2023. Many exciting things to come, so keep an eye out for them! 


Photos courtesy of The Cultural Index

Words by Ella Paritsky